Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Scandalous Love 4/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 19th, 2017
We have been working our way through the Old Testament footings for Christmas. Mostly because our cultural religion has unhitched the images of Christmas that don’t conveniently fit on a Christmas card. And I’m going to tell you, I do not ever want to see the images of Hosea on a Christmas card. The text that was read for us comes from the Prophet Hosea; we’ll get there in a moment. There is a story though, that goes with this and it is a good chunk of the Old Testament. I’m going to try to tell it quickly and hit the high points, or maybe the low points, I’m not sure.
Back when David was the king — you remember David — he killed Goliath with the sling; and David, who played the lyre for Saul; the boy shepherd who became king. When David was king, there was just one nation, Israel. They were a small nation. They were a vulnerable nation to the larger empires. They had to navigate around and try to make do. David was a good king. He built Jerusalem. David was a bored king. He had an affair multiple times and killed another man so that he could have his wife.
Solomon, his son, took over as king. When Solomon became king, his request to God was: please make me wise. And God did make him wise. And when we talk about Solomon, we say: He was a wise king. And that’s a small piece of who Solomon was. Solomon was a sexual addict king. Solomon had multiple wives. Solomon liked to marry women from other nations. Being wise gets boring pretty fast. That’s why men have trouble with middle-age, you know. Life becomes kind of flat; no longer really a challenge to meet. And with boredom, comes an increase in appetite.
And Solomon heard other kings had grand residences. And he did a little bit travelling to negotiate some treaties and he saw those grand residences and he got some ideas about how he wanted to govern. And he liked power. And so, he returned and he centralized the governing of the nation and he started an aggressive building campaign. And he put up suitable buildings to house a centralized government. And he put up a suitable residence for an honored king. And he raised taxes through the roof, to pay for this new level of nationhood. And folks groaned under the weight of the yoke. They said the yoke is unbearable.
Well, people came unglued when Solomon was dating other women and having affairs and taking other women as his wives. The rumor was and the text tells us, that he had somewhere around 1000 wives. People didn’t like that, they called him the immoral king, who marries foreign women and that’s bad enough but then, he built shrines and he worships their gods. And he taxes us, so he can live in luxury.
But Solomon discovered what his father David had discovered and that is: Hey, I’m the king. I can have you imprisoned, or tortured, or executed; or all three. I’m the king. Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about? You seem to have some concerns. His infidelity and his love of opulence sowed the seeds of division throughout the nation. His son, Rehoboam, followed in his father’s footsteps, meeting and marrying women, especially princesses and duke daughters and the children of other royalty from around that part of the world.
When it was time for him to be made king, messengers came from the ten tribes of the north. And they said to him: Your father’s yoke has been unbearably heavy; we hope you will lighten the load.
He travelled to the northern part of the kingdom, to the city up there called Shechem. And the advisors of the royalty — that’s where the critics were for him — the folks who yelled the loudest about the taxes that his father had imposed. He travelled up there to be consecrated as king. And they approached him in person and said: The taxes are too much. You have to lighten the load. It is an unbearable yoke. Your father put a heavy yoke on us. Make our burden lighter.
He said to them: Give me three days to ponder what I will do. He left behind the royal advisors. He went off with his friends on a three-day drinking binge. He came back and he mustered all of the swagger he could and he stepped up after being consecrated king and he made an inappropriate sexual joke. He said: My little finger is thicker than the loins of my father. Yes, it means what you think it means. And I wish I was kidding. I wish I was joking in some way. If you want to read about it, it’s 1 Kings Chapter 12 – the whole story. He’s basically saying: I am the big man here. He said: My father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will make it heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.
It started a revolt and a very short civil war and it broke the nation into two. Rehoboam, remained king of the southern kingdom, now called Judah. And the northern kingdom, now called Israel, they got a new king. But they made some changes.
Now, you spent three weeks talking… listening to me talk about the southern kingdom but… Jeroboam… I’m sorry, Rehoboam – it’s hard to keep all the Boams straight. Rehoboam continued as king of the southern kingdom. He was the first in the line of bad kings. And the last in the line of bad kings was Jehoiakim. You listened to me for three weeks, talk about Jehoiakim; and how the southern kingdom of Judah was eventually sacked by the Babylonians; and all the people, most of the people, were carried off into exile. We’ll come back to them later.
The northern kingdom now, Israel, made up of the ten tribes of the north, they were the ones who had made all that noise about the infidelity of their king. And what really bothered them were the taxes they had to pay to support a strong centralized government and lavish kings and a king living in opulence. And so, their first thing was to decentralize the government. They didn’t build government building. They expected the king to live in a simple residence like them. And they appointed a guy named Jeroboam to be the king. See, my concern was Rehoboam, now Jeroboam. You would think they would be related, they are not.
Now, Jeroboam has a problem: How am I going to govern? I have no authority. How can I be king, I’ve got nothing? And so, he started, kind of, a competition between the tribes and he would be the judge about who got to make decisions, that became kind of, an intermixing between religion, loyalty to the king and nationalism or patriotism. Kind of became a patriotic religion. It became the center point of the nation. Jeroboam, to support this, built two major worship centers. It’s not that big of a nation anymore and it was kind of vulnerable. But, he built two big sanctuaries, rivaling the opulence of the temple that was in Judah, back in Jerusalem.
One in the north, near the Dan River. And one in Bethel, near the southern river. He ordained a new priesthood, to be loyal to him in this new religion. It included annual festivals and pilgrimages and obedience to an unseen god. And in each of these worship centers, he commissioned and installed a golden calf to serve as a symbol of Almighty God. But, his festival days didn’t line up with Passover. And the calves that he installed, that were made out of gold — but they weren’t made out of gold — they were actually made out of iron and coated in gold. We know that now because one of them has been found. This is an historical event, not just stories.
Those calves looked too much like the idols forbidden by Moses. And the nationalism that worshiped the nation was a bit too much. And so, the old-school religious people, the moral people of the community, of the nation, accused him of making his own cult, starting his own national cult to worship him. You can read all about this, in 1 Kings 12, 13, 14, 16. 2 Kings 3 and a good chunk of Chronicles.
There are archaeological digs at both Dan and Bethel. They have found these worship centers. There is evidence of cultic sacrifice. There is cultic feasting that happened. And at Dan, the one in the north, they have found a four-horned alter, and alter with four horns, made of iron and remnants of gold coating – fascinating; absolutely fascinating. There’s evidence that these sanctuaries were used for several hundred years.
Under Jeroboam, though, something else happened. Their northern neighbor, the Assyrians, began to breathe on their neck and not in the good way. They sent a delegation south and said: We are your kingdom neighbors to the north. Either you will pay tribute to us or you will cease to exist. Well, Jeroboam had to do something. And so, he began to pay tribute. And, of course, he didn’t want to take it out of his own pocket and so he took it out of taxes. And now he had to raise taxes to keep doing what he wanted to do. And, of course, they didn’t like that.
The Assyrian delegation had also said to him: You will worship some of our gods. That didn’t really upset people. Nationalism reared its head. And there was, kind of, an exchange going on of: We want to try to get along with our neighbors to the north. And we want them to kind of like us. And so, the church, the national church that Jeroboam had founded, started to kind of lean in that direction. Folks didn’t really object to it all that much. God sent a prophet though. The story of Jonah came. Do you remember the story of Jonah? Do you remember the point of the story of Jonah? It is not: Don’t run from God. That is not the point of the story of Jonah.
Really, the point of the story of Jonah is: Your patriotism gets in the way of your worship. Do you remember where God sent Jonah to go preach, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The message Jonah brought to them is: Worship my one true God. And the story of Jonah is: They did. They repented. They put on sackcloth and ash and joined him in worshiping the one true God, Yahweh. Their sin had come before God. Do you remember what their sin was? Their sin was they worshiped multiple gods, particularly Dagon, a fish god, who was purportedly half fish, half man. Do you remember what swallowed Jonah? A giant fish.
The message of Jonah was also: Jonah’s God, is bigger than the God of Assyria. Jonah’s God is capable of taking care of men. The allegory of Jonah was about God’s love for our enemies. At the end of Jonah, Jonah is very upset that the people of Nineveh had repented because Jonah was looking forward to them being destroyed. He was actually going to enjoy that. And that didn’t happen, they repented. And, God had to say to Jonah: I love the Ninevites too.
But, it also recalled that first commandment; do you remember the first of the Ten Commandments? Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Because the real issue back home, it wasn’t really about converting the Assyrians, it was about reminding the people of the northern kingdom, Israel, to worship one God. And the real issue at home was folks had become indifferent to God and God’s ways. They worshiped other gods, like the gods of power relationships and gods of advancement and gods of let me get ahead, please.
God articulated God’s challenge this way, at first: You are like a neighbor how moves boundary stones that are what God said to the people of Israel, you’re like a bad neighbor. And if you want to define: Well, what are God’s ways? God’s ways are being a good neighbor. But the people of Israel had a hard time with that; they really wanted to focus in on the sins of their king. And they, kind of, obsessed on their king and the sins of the king and… you’re marrying four women and you’re bringing them here and you’re putting up shrines to their gods and you’re worshiping them. And that’s the real problem before God. And God came back and said: That’s not really the problem. Into this confused, fighting, wandering nation, God sends another prophet. Hosea used the infidelity of the kings, like David and Solomon and Rehoboam and Jeroboam, to turn the conversation around. Hosea represents God’s relentless pursuing love.
Hosea’s wife, Gomer, represents the prostituted life of the people of Israel. The people did not like this and they tried to kill Hosea and he had to run. But the metaphor worked. And there are two reasons it worked. It worked because it was shocking, especially to people who thought they were moral. They’re practicing their religion. They’re keeping the festivals, they’re obeying all the rules, and they’re punishing all the people that should be punished. And, therefore, this is pleasing to God. And to be compared to an unfaithful prostitute was absolutely stunning to them. And I’m sure they were outraged because they tried to kill the messenger. The second reason that the metaphor worked was because it makes an important comparison for us to hear too. The rationalization of the unfaithful prostitute is the rationalization of the moral person. I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get by. I’m just trying to make ends meet. I’m just doing what it takes to pay the bills.
And let’s be really clear here: In Hosea, God is not passing judgment on women or men who find it necessary to use their bodies to pay the bills. God is saying: You people of Israel are so offended by someone rationalizing unfaithfulness, like a prostitute. But you will not see your own rationalized unfaithfulness to me.
The message of God through Hosea is: You people claim to be so offended by the sexual proclivities of your kings. You make accusations and you charge that they are unfaithful. But look where your love lies. Your love of nation and power has become idolatry. The speed with which you run to offer your love to anyone, or anything, that makes you feel important is sickening. And the ease with which you openly follow and justify anyone who speaks with bravado. God says: Having a relationship with you is like being married to someone who is unfaithful; who launders; who sleeps around; who sells themselves to anyone. And rationalizes that it’s okay because you say, well, I really love you, God. You’re like a prostitute and I’m getting screwed.
God’s judgment came out of this. God’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel was to let the natural consequences of their unfaithfulness come up on them. They were unfaithful to God which made their faithfulness to the Assyrians convenient. They were trying to cozy up to the Assyrians for protection. Yes, we’ll worship some Assyrian gods. We’ll talk up their military power and strength. We’ll schmooze, we’ll do some business, we’ll make some money, and it’ll all be a good thing. And the Assyrians see how valuable Israel is nd they come to like the Israelites. And so, Assyria invades Israel. There’s a siege on Shechem. There’s some attempts to appease the Assyrian king – they fail. The texts that have been found record 27,290 people being carried off into slavery and distributed around Assyria. You can read the stories in 2 Kings 15, 17, 18; 1 Chronicles 5; 2 Chronicles 30 and 31.
The entire population of the northern kingdom disappeared. They absorbed into the Assyrian population. Just as the southern kingdom, Judah, was destroyed and carried off into the Babylonian empire for being dishonorable. The northern kingdom, Israel, was destroyed for unbelief and unfaithfulness. Belief in God means, what is important to God becomes important to me. Belief is trusting in God’s authority, God’s providence, God’s voice, more than any other voice in my head.
And God tried to say to them: Simply be a good neighbor to one another. Stop moving the boundary markers. Have a center of morality. Unbelief and unfaithfulness has become evident when that desire to feel secure leads to us to always be negotiating with whatever power there is in our life. What do I have to do to please you, so that you’ll like me and I can feel secure?
Unbelief and unfaithfulness become visible when our security comes not from God and our trust in God’s providence because we have no centering principles then, to hold fast and we readily negotiate with whatever god seems to be in power. And we become too familiar and we lose ourselves and we are assimilated into the world around us. And our rationalization is a familiar one: I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get ahead. I’m just doing what I’ve got to do. And God says: Don’t kid yourself. You’re for sale. And you’ve been pimped.
God’s promise is — through Hosea — is that God will buy back God’s people at a high cost, which God will pay. God will be the faithful husband that buys back from a pimp an unfaithful spouse. Not right away, takes a few generations. The population of the northern kingdom, Israel is carried off. The cities are rebuilt and repopulated by the expanding Assyrian empire. About 60 years, the Assyrians were conquered by the Babylonians. And then about ten years after that, the Babylonians are conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, is made aware that there are a remnant people in the midst of this new kingdom, people from Judah. The people rescued from the Egyptians; the people who had survived the great flood.
Cyrus says that his heart is moved by this God. He doesn’t stop worshiping his other gods but he says his heart was moved by this God. And he makes a royal decree; it’s called the Cyrus Cylinder. And the Cyrus Cylinder was found on in the nation of Babylon in 1879, by Hormuzd Rassam, an explorer. And it now resides in the British Museum of History. On this decree, he says that God has charged him to build a house for the people of God in Jerusalem. And he sets free all of those people of that God. Historian Josephus records that Cyrus was changed by this God. That he became quite benevolent. He grew a nation that was great in generosity.
The descendants of people from Judah had held together. They were the exiles. They were a remnant. And so, Cyrus sought out and he put out a decree across the entire empire, seeking these remnant people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah; people freed from the Egyptians; people whose ancestors had survived the great flood. He said: I’m going to send you to your ancestral home. He takes up an offering, a very large offering and out the treasury o of the nation, he sends silver and gold and goods and wagons and beasts. He appoints a new king. And the books of Ezra and Nehemiah talk about the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
When the decree goes out, the invitation to be free from servitude, to return to build a house for The Lord in Jerusalem, people from the southern kingdom, Judah, the remnant, they came out of the woodwork. No one from the northern kingdom returned. Hosea was right when he said that unfaithful Israelites would be swallowed up by history, as if they had never even existed. Kingdoms come. Kingdoms go.
Hebrew scripture sees God as active in human history. And the message of the northern kingdom is that saying we love God is not enough. Saying I believe in God is not enough. Simply claiming to be a people of faith misses the mark. Jesus will recall the lessons of the northern kingdom. Jesus will quote Hosea 5. The Pharisees are bringing their sacrifices to the temple but they have no mercy for the sick, or the outcast, or the indebted, especially the indebted. The Pharisees are all too quick to say: You owe me money. Pay, or I’ll have you imprisoned. They show no mercy, though they receive mercy from God; all too quick to seek a legal judgment. Jesus has some things to say about that.
Jesus will come back and quote for us the burden and the yoke image. He will say: Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke up on you and learn from me, for I am gentle. I’m humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Now, where do you suppose he got that image?
I think each of us has to ponder two questions about our life. What kind of people are we going to be and what remnant will we leave? I think of the southern kingdom, Judah and its descent, sliding down into dishonor. How simple it is, how easy it is, to slide into money and its rewards of power, having the identity of being rich and calling it blessing. Especially if you got rich by failing to pay workers who did jobs for you; especially if you continue your wealth by failing to pay appropriate taxes to care for veterans and vulnerable members of society. How tempting it is to hire friends who are always praising you and call it good. And when things don’t go well, how tempting it is to lie and pitch a tantrum. Dishonor displeases God.
In the northern kingdom, Israel, it’s dissolving into unfaithfulness and how easy it is to have no conviction and no self-discipline. How tempting it is to unhitch ourselves from any centering pole for our morality. And
always make peace by going along, to get along and smiling and nodding; always making the sale; always cozying up to power in the name of survival, in the name of advancement, in the name of accumulation. Just listen to whatever voice tells you you’re important. Worship whatever god promises you what you want. Unfaithfulness displeases The Lord.
I feel stuck in the middle between all those things that we shouldn’t do. It’s quite the burden. It’s exhausting. I wish God would send us someone who can show us the way. And now, we have to wait.